Somewhere in Maine a boy waits for my phone call. I can’t call because I can’t move. My chin is touching my knees and I’m breathing so fast I’m practically vacuuming the carpet. I’ve been with Alexander for two years. He changed my life all around. The man I woke up next to this morning was not him.
Today I will bury myself in the woodwork of the past and future. I will imagine myself as a baby and a housewife. I will think: if I can just make it to the future, I’ll be married into safety, with nothing to think about but someone else. In part of my past I do not like to visit, there are two buildings. The space between them never gets any brighter than a closet. Across the street is my father’s law office. Today I will try to edit the past, thinking—out of all those buildings, why did I choose the space between?
After this happened, I stopped wearing party dresses to school. I wore Toughskins and had my teeth knocked out playing hockey. I was my brother’s little brother. Back then we were shuttled between the country and city with the changes in my father’s career. I was this snaggletoothed creature with hair to my knees and seven pairs of Toughskins. It went over really well at my private school. People thought I had lice.
It was a pretty good year, regardless. My mom kept candy bars around the house so I didn’t feel like I had to go out for them. My dad drove me to school every day, even though it was only a couple blocks. Sometimes, when my brother still went to a school nearby, he would walk over and visit me at lunchtime. Nobody seemed to mind that I was a boy. Before I’d been a walking composite of all the things “little girls are” in nursery rhymes. Sort of like an animated doily. My brother liked me the new way. He took me on. My parents thought that nothing had changed. They bought me a guinea pig.
This guinea pig was named Mumruffin. It was an Abyssinian with cowlicks all over its body. That guinea pig loved me so much that it would climb up the lateral bars of its cage and hum to me while I was sleeping. I caught it once, its lumpy body scarcely distinguishable from the lump that was its head. I let it out, and it sat on my pillow all night long, singing its screechy, rhythmic song. I used to put my Mood Ring under it, and it would always make the “love” color.
So it wasn’t such a bad time—I had this guinea pig, I had my brother, and I was the best seven year old female goalie on the east coast. “Worse things have happened to better people” is what my mother says and she is right. The same thing has happened to better people. At the police station where we went to look at a scrapbook of criminals, they said two other little girls had been dragged into alleys that week. The reason those girls were “better people” is because they probably never let it happen again.
Things got bad when I started growing. For one thing, all my friends were boys, so I had no one to talk to about what those sex-education classes called my “changing body”. I was very anti-my changing body. It hurt when I got hit in the chest with a puck. When I grew breasts for real, I started drinking like a fish.
There were plenty of opportunities for me to drink, because like I said, all my friends were boys and boys always have a drink to offer to younger girls. My brother’s friends would experiment on me while my brother was at boarding school. They would see how many drinks it took before I couldn’t talk anymore. Every night I would get carried out of a different bar. I don’t even remember being sixteen years old.
There was something heroic about it, though. Every time I knew I was about to fall over, I’d buy a stick of beef jerky for the bar dog. Like clockwork, five minutes later I’d be down.
Eventually all the bartenders found out how old I was. It must have been after my dad threatened to have their licenses taken away. They liked me, though, and my friend Mark would bring me into the Manor before it opened to play pool and drink pitchers. I’d get all knock-kneed drunk at four o’clock in the afternoon, and when the bar opened I’d have to go out and sit in his Camaro until he got a chance to take me home.
He was a disc jockey, so sometimes it would take awhile. He had this day job filling Coke machines, and there was always about a case of soda in the front seat. I’d wake up when the sun was going down with a six-pack stamped into the side of my face.
Mark was one of those red people. He had red hair, red moss on his upper lip, and red spotted skin. It was spooky, how red he was. He was a minister’s son, so he had some problems. He was kind of a bitter guy, but he liked me because I was a good sport, and I could drink more than any girl he knew.
One time Mark didn’t drive me home. He wanted to take a walk by the lake across the street from the Manor. I was practically unconscious at the time, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing my parents. I remember stumbling around underneath these willow trees and Mark wanting to go swimming.
I lost my virginity that night. I guess he got my clothes off with the swimming thing. I was skinnier than a piece of bacon at the time, so it wasn’t exactly as though I could do anything about it. The worst thing is that I don’t remember if I tried. All I know is that I felt like someone’s laundry afterwards. You should never trust a person when even the whites of their eyes are red.
The time when I was six, I was wearing a blue checkered dress. There was a big rabbit sewn onto the front of it, with 3-D arms and legs and ears. When the man lifted the dress up I was looking into the glass eyes of the rabbit. I saw its 3-D arms and legs flopping around, which I thought was much more interesting than what was going on underneath my dress. I felt like if it was bad the rabbit would look different. Maybe if I had said no, the man would have let me go. Instead, I said “I like to kiss my mommy, and my daddy, and my dog Winnie, and my brother Jamie . . . ” and on and on and on. The last thing he said was “Don’t tell your mother”.
I need to do this, to listen to my past and chart it on a graph somehow. To see that it is as predictable and regular as the polygraph sheet of a chronic liar. Because I am like the heroine of every stupid horror movie you ever saw. The thing is, I am also the villain. You say, “Don’t open the door. Don’t go in the closet. Don’t investigate the closet!” And I always go in the closet. I know what’s in the closet already, because I put it there.
My roommate knows a woman who had an orgasm while she was being gang-raped. She was already grown up and normal when this thing happened. I don’t think a guinea pig can help that woman. She probably goes to a psychiatrist. Sometimes I dream that I go to a psychiatrist and he says: “There’s not a single thing I can do to help you”. Worse things have happened to better people. At least I’ve never been gang-raped or had an orgasm.
Two years ago I worked in a dive bar in Hamilton, New York. It was the core of sleaziness in a town that is otherwise wholesome. I gravitated to this place when I went to college and got a job as a waitress and general lackey. It was part of my social alchemy project. I also got all the free beer I could drink. In college I tried to live the idyllic childhood my parents could never provide. From six on, I had known that no one can protect me from anything, so I made the best of protecting myself. I thought I could make people mean well without meaning to, through the force of my own helplessness. That’s what social alchemy is—a kind of absurdity that anchored me to the earth.
Back then, I had an unfortunate problem with my self-image. I saw myself as a small, fluffy character you might love the way you love Bambi, or Santa’s helpers. The way I loved my guinea pig. This is a bad idea to keep up when you’re walking around in bars at night wearing cocktail-waitress clothes. I’d let men press me up against the wall when they talked to me, thinking they were feeling the same things they felt when they roughed up a poodle. Men would ask me to help them test melons in the supermarket. What would register was: “Poor helpless bachelor,” and not: “This bastard wants to do the same thing to me”.
When these men would get around to making their big move, I’d be almost tragically disappointed. Can’t he see, I’d think to myself, that there is a thin atomic force field around me that deflects everything but a friendly drink, maybe a ride home when it’s raining? Doesn’t he see the tattoo on my face that reads, “Protect me from men like yourself”?
Other times it was different. No perception of reaction, no disappointment. I’d wake up hung over in a strange place with no clothes on, taking a stranger’s word for it that “nothing happened.” At times like that I would wait until I got home. Then I would squat on the floor of my room for hours, days, fetal, in the smallest lump you have ever seen a person get into. I had to have a blanket, and I had to stay close to the ground. Pictures ran through my head faster than fast-motion movies, faster than gasping for air, faster than they should. If I hadn’t been able to stop that feeling my mind would have skidded out to a stop, leaving nothing but the feeling, and a strange empty space.
There is only one person who has seen me that way. He is the only boy I have ever loved. He is not the person I woke up with this morning.
Every Tuesday a jazz trio played at the club where I worked. They usually brought in a coffee crowd so I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d try to break even by drinking about a keg of free beer.
A boy would come in on those nights. He wore black and sat at the end of the bar drinking black coffee. He’d always be reading newspapers in languages that weren’t English, and he never looked at the band. I figured he was either foreign or wished he was, but it seemed like he understood those newspapers. I poured his coffee and one time he asked me what I did when I wasn’t waitressing.
I told him I visited Graceland as often as I could, and read a lot of French absurdism. I wasn’t lying, either. I told him how when Alfred Jarry died, his last request was for a toothpick. I said I was going to have a baby one day, just so I could name it “Bourgrelas”. After a while I noticed he was looking at me in this certain way. When I’d get up to distribute beers, he’d keep looking. He had eyes blacker than his coffee and just the right amount of beard on his face. I started drinking beers like it was the night of my twenty-first birthday.
I woke up on the edge of a loft bed, looking eight feet down to an oriental rug. I had all my clothes on, and a blanket over that. The boy with the black eyes was clinging to the wall like one of those things you throw and it sticks. Eventually he woke up and unadhered himself. He said “You fell asleep in my car before you told me where you live, so I brought you here”.
He looked nice in the morning. He said, “Would you like a blueberry muffin?” Once in a long while, social alchemy works, just when you stopped expecting it to. After that, he followed me around until I liked him enough to tell him where I’d be in advance. He’s the only boy I ever met who can say nice things without sounding sappy. He says my hair is like Spanish moss, and talks about my eyes. I didn’t know what color my eyes were before I met him.
Alexander is almost too aware of things to enjoy them, but he claims I altered his way of thinking. He says, “Before I met you, I thought happiness was a bourgeois emotion.” That’s a joke. His parents made him grow up too fast, and sometimes he wants his childhood back, clean and in one piece. I know how that feels, and I hold his head in my lap when he cries, shuddering and curled up, his nose running down my leg.
When I was first in love with this boy I would stay up late watching over him like a gargoyle. I’d hang my hair down around his face so he could dream he was swimming in Spanish moss. I could feel my heart drooling on him.
Maybe if I were with him always I could sweep the muckings from my past back into the past, and keep them there somehow. I could build a healthy capacity for desire, within the realm of the chosen one. Already when I’d see him walk down the street in the fall I’d practically bite my hand. He’s tall and slender, with eyes that make me forget that I have ever been anything other than safe.
Today I know myself completely. This comes from waking up with a stranger. Whose arms are these? Where are my shorts? Shock. The closet handle still warm in my hand, I am waking to a new day. What comes next is figuring how to live through it.
Here is the pattern of my life:
Through each calamity I purchase a stretch of cold, dear understanding. I am removed from my life, like people who have died and lived to tell about it. Suspended above myself, I see the map of my twenty-two years before me, illuminated as harshly and suddenly as a lightning-jagged horizon. When the light goes out, I am numb, free to glide to the next jolt of awareness.
* * * * *
It is a day to bury myself in the folds of the past and future. In pictures of a present I cannot live in I watch myself. My legs flex and stretch like bows and arrows, in a tangle with limbs that are not mine.
In the recent past, I stood at the foot of the bed where my roommate and her boyfriend were sleeping. I was standing in the path of light a streetlamp was sending across the room. I was naked and unconscious. Apparently something went off in my head while I was in bed with this guy. I surfaced through layers of denial and whatever I’d been drinking. All of a sudden I knew that something bad was happening, and I got up and stood beside my roommate’s bed, as though another person could help me at a time like that.
It kills me that this man had the same name as my favorite brother, the only person I know in my family. The other thing that kills me is the little rags. I don’t know where it started, but I’ve been tying these little rags around my ankles for years, to cover up how skinny they are. They are like homing-pigeon bands. They are all I was wearing when I woke up.
One time Alexander was crying in my lap, and I took off one of my little rags to wipe his nose, because he was embarrassed. And that’s all I had on when I woke up. This man, Jamie was his name, stood over the couch where I had finally collapsed. He wanted to know if I’d like to see the ballet sometime. Today it will not be fun being me.
The next forty years will not be like this, because somewhere in me there is a person who wants to live until I die. Where the light comes on is when I think about Alexander, my brother, and that guinea pig buried on the shores of Lake Chatauqua. All those things are anchors to the earth.
I think of them splayed like jacks on the eastern seaboard: one in Ohio, one in Maine, one in New York. If you connect the dots of their towns on a map they make a straight line, a miniature Orion’s belt. If the world were the size of its scale models, I could swipe up those anchors in one try.
That is how I live through days like today: by giving myself slack. I say, “I can’t give up before I’ve tried motherhood,” or “I haven’t even been to Europe yet.” Then all of a sudden I’m standing right next to myself, as close as I can get, and I say, “It’s just me, running toward an intersection blindfolded.” I move closer, until I’m almost inside.
What happened in that alley wasn’t my fault. There has to be a reason I’m not dead. Until I know it. I’ll just hold onto the rug and stay close to the ground.
Then my brain stops trying to outrun itself, and something grows still inside me. Right then, I see the hopelessness and beauty of everything.
It feels like my life is courting me.